“Skylar reads…” is a new series of book reviews by writer Skylar Baker-Jordan. Each book will be scored on a scale of “one book” to “five books”, with five being the best.
I picked up Shortest Way Home by Pete Buttigieg for the reason most people will have bought the book—to get to know him better. Before last year, most Americans had never heard of the young midwestern mayor who was skyrocketing to the top tier of candidates in the Democratic primary. It seems Buttigieg anticipated this problem, and Shortest Way Home serves as an introduction to Buttigieg, his life, his experiences as mayor, and a general sense of his governing style.
For those looking for detailed policy positions or a deep philosophical treatise that might help nail down Buttigieg’s politics, this isn’t the book. Buttigieg doesn’t really touch on national policy, though you do get some idea of his positions on such things as the economy (government intervention is good, as with the auto bailout), social issues (no surprise, he supports gay marriage) and American involvement in the Middle East (it’s complicated, but the endless wars have got to stop). If you’re looking for the nuts and bolts of “Medicare for all who want it” or Buttigieg’s Douglass Plan (his policies on race and issues affecting Black America), you’re not going to find it here.
That was, of course, never the point of Shortest Way Home. Clearly written to provide background and context for Buttigieg’s presidential bid (the book was published in February 2019, a month after Buttigieg announced his exploratory committee), it is your typical autobiography. Buttigieg traces his life from a brick house in South Bend to Harvard Yard and Oxford to a high-rise office in Chicago and back to South Bend, where he was elected mayor in 2011. It’s an impressive if not always interesting journey on its own—anyone who works in politics or media knows the Ivy League cum Oxbridge (or vice versa) type—and Buttigieg writes about his hometown and childhood with a warmth and ease he doesn’t always display on the campaign trail.
It isn’t until we get to 2010, when Buttigieg ran a failed campaign to unseat an incumbent state treasurer, that Buttigieg’s life story really differs that much from your average high achieving white boy, and it’s here where Buttigieg’s writing is the most animated and dynamic. He writes with gusto about trekking across the Hoosier state, going from fish fries to parades while cold calling in between. The characters he meets along the way—a Republican who writes him a cheque because his buddy “says you’re a good guy” or the party official who meets with him while plowing a cornfield—seem like they could have come out of Primary Colors. Where a more cynical writer would have turned them into ridiculous caricatures, Buttigieg writes about them with admiration and respect.
Indeed, the book often feels less like an autobiography and more like a love letter to Indiana. Whether Buttigieg is recounting how state political and business leaders—including Republicans—came together to defeat a homophobic law passed by then-Governor Mike Pence or how his hometown revitalized itself (under Buttigieg’s leadership, of course) after appearing on a list of failing American cities, “Mayor Pete” writes eloquently and glowingly about his home state. It’s a reminder to those not from the industrial Midwest that the region isn’t the dying wasteland many seem to presume, and it’s in these passages Buttigieg shines.
Buttigieg doesn’t shy away from the more controversial aspects of his mayoralty, which is good. He goes into detail about the demotion of former police chief Darryl Boykins and reckons with his own shortcomings when it comes to policing—one of the chief controversies he’s faced on the campaign trail. He acknowledges mistakes, owns up to failures, and explains his decision in a frank and honest way which would likely surprise his harshest critics.
The book isn’t without its faults, though. Buttigieg’s writing is largely constrained and guarded, and it’s clear he’s holding back and choosing his words carefully. This might be good when you’re a politician, but it isn’t great when you’re an author. Because Buttigieg remains so cautious in what he will and won’t discuss, it’s difficult to get a real grasp on who he is. We find out a few personal details (he’s an early riser, but not by choice; he loves Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue) and get a few funny anecdotes (one that sticks out is a practical joke Chasten’s family played on him), but largely we’re meeting Pete the politician, not Pete the man.
That’s a shame, really, because Pete the man has an interesting and relevant story to tell as well. Buttigieg discusses his decision to come out and his relationship with Chasten, but he skips a crucial part of the journey every gay man takes – figuring out you’re gay and what happens next. Memoirs by politicians still in the arena are typically cautious and light on the type of rich and honest details that make the genre so compelling, and Shortest Way Home is no exception. It would have been nice to read about Buttigieg’s internal conflict in accepting his sexuality, when he realized he was gay, and how that realization came to pass. We don’t get that, though, and as a result we’re left with the notion that a big part of Buttigieg’s story is missing. For the man who is the first serious openly gay candidate for president, not grappling more with the process of coming out to oneself is a serious omission.
Perhaps that will be discussed in the post-presidency book. I hope so, because Shortest Way Home is poorer for not including it. If you want to get to know Pete Buttigieg, it’s worth reading—but only if you want the sanitized political version. Honestly, there’s not much here for the average reader that they couldn’t get by reading Buttigieg’s Wikipedia page or any of the dozens of profiles mainstream media has done on him. Shortest Way Home is essential reading to Buttigieg supporters and those interested in the changing economic landscape and the changing cityscapes of the Midwest but not many people beyond those groups. It’s a fun read, though, and I enjoyed the time I spent in Buttigieg’s South Bend with its working-class charm and Hoosier hospitality.
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Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.